An ecosystem approach to drylands : building support for new development policies

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Despite concerted efforts, dryland issues have failed to capture sufficient global attention to propel rapid progress in curbing land degradation and alleviating poverty in drylands. Recent initiatives and assessments affecting drylands management and development have either been unable to attract sufficient funds, or too mired in procedural issues to effectively address problems at a local level. 40% of low-income countries are largely dryland, where livelihoods critically depend upon the sustainable management of dryland resources to survive. Yet, poverty reduction and debt relief measures fail to specifically factor in the management of drylands ecosystems to improve poor people’s standards of living.

The support and policy challenges facing dryland initiatives stem from a limited approach to the issue—one which restricts itself to resolving the present problems of land degradation and food insecurity, rather than realizing the full potential of the numerous goods, services, and benefits offered by drylands. An ecosystem approach to drylands monitoring and assessment, on the other hand, holds great promise for building support for enhanced dryland management, development, and investment, precisely because of its more comprehensive, forward-looking focus.

What Is An Ecosystem Approach To Management And Development?

An ecosystem-based approach is a strategy that examines drylands from a broader perspective. While traditional methods of dryland management concentrate on maximizing commodity production and agricultural yields, the objective of an ecosystem approach is to optimize the ecosystem’s benefits by accounting for the entire range of goods and services that humans depend on to survive and prosper. This approach provides quantitative indicators for those non-commodity or non-market goods and services that are not adequately addressed in conventional techniques of monitoring and assessment, such as recreation, wildlife habitat, biodiversity conservation, water quality, and carbon storage, as well as commodities such as food, fuel, and fiber.

An ecosystem approach simultaneously evaluates how human use of an ecosystem affects its functioning and productivity. By integrating social and economic information with environmental information about the ecosystem, the approach explicitly links human needs to the biological capacity of ecosystems to fulfill those needs. For example, it accounts for scale, social considerations, and management practices when identifying specific objectives for drylands. It thus incorporates statistics in areas that previous initiatives have neglected or treated exclusively, like the importance of local, national, and global considerations, poverty alleviation, and physical and biological limitations of the soil. The approach then taps into this reservoir of quantitative data to make tradeoffs efficient, transparent, and sustainable, bearing future generations in mind.

This approach also recognizes that ecosystems function as whole entities, and cannot be managed effectively in pieces, or solely according to political boundaries. The approach thus focuses on protecting and conserving entire ecosystems. It views management as successful only if it preserves or enhances the capacity of a given ecosystem to produce a diverse array of goods and services over time, allowing for sustainable production of crops and other commodities.

Applying An Ecosystem Approach To Dryland Assessments

Specific goods and services to be considered when assessing drylands vary by region and by scale of analysis. Identifying indicators for each of the goods and services provided is crucial to understanding conditions and trends over time. The indicators selected will depend on data type and quality, as well as the periods for which information is available. Among the most common goods and services provided by drylands are forage and livestock; crops such as cereals, roots, and tubers; woody vegetation for fuel; water resources for household, industrial, agricultural, and recreational purposes (although not abundant in many drylands); high levels of biodiversity; carbon storage for limiting concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; tourism and recreation; and ties to global and local markets through international and regional trade, particularly strong with adjacent humid lands.

An assessment of dryland conditions and trends based on an ecosystem approach should also incorporate the effects of pressures stemming from human activities. Some human activities, such as agriculture and recreation, are sources of important goods and services as well as pressures on drylands. The use of quantitative indicators enables examination of opportunities for producing goods and services as well as risks associated with such pressures.

For instance, an ecosystem-based dryland assessment should address the dramatic changes in drylands brought about by human settlements and urbanization. Besides leading to increased demand for water and sanitation services, urbanization increases runoff through the paving and compaction of soil. In high densities, domestic livestock with limited grazing land can change floristic composition, reduce biodiversity, increase soil erosion, and, in extreme situations, eliminate vegetation cover. Conversion of dryland to agriculture replaces native vegetation with crops, and changes soil composition through fertilizer and pesticide use.

Over the next five decades, drylands will face significant challenges from climate change. A forecasted drier and hotter climate for large areas in Africa would reduce agricultural potential and could significantly alter livestock and crop production systems in drylands. Biodiversity, water supplies, and wood fuel production all could be negatively affected. Desertification, which may be influenced by climatological, social, political, economic, and cultural factors, can stress dryland systems and lead to decreased capacity to provide goods and services. An ecosystem approach would strive to provide accurate indicators for all these factors. The Payoff: Profiting From An Ecosystem Approach

An ecosystem approach to dryland monitoring and assessment would equip decisionmakers with a powerful tool for creating and implementing more effective drylands policy. Quantitative indicators of dryland ecosystem goods and services would aid institutions and stakeholders in their policy dialogues, environmental reporting and monitoring, and impact assessment. An ecosystem approach also would provide enhanced information for the critical examination of benefits and risks of development, investment, and management alternatives.

Although quantitative indicators of ecosystem goods and services are an integral part of the ecosystem approach, it is true that the development of these indicators by themselves is not sufficient to stimulate a change in drylands development. Changes in policies and institutions to spur development of indicators must be combined with measures to encourage communication of this information and its use in national policy dialogues, environmental reporting, environmental impact assessment, and emergency relief. Ensuring that stakeholders have access to information needed for meaningful participation is critical if policies are to be reformed and implemented.

Fortunately, due to its ability to attract attention to frequently overlooked yet profitable dryland goods and services, an ecosystem approach has the potential to generate the enthusiasm and investment needed to address the difficult problems facing dryland countries. Appealing to what people care about in dryland areas, the ecosystem approach recognizes problems at the local level as well as across multiple scales and time dimensions. Its implementation would likely attract and sustain the interest of development agencies, governments, national delegates to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD), other international conventions, and the general public. If these organizations were to undertake an ecosystem approach to monitoring and assessment, much progress could be made in the revitalization and coordination of contemporary initiatives in dryland development and poverty reduction.

Robin White, Dan Tunstall, Norbert Henninger

Earth Trends

World Resources Institute

Janvier 2003

This article was based on “An Ecosystem Approach to Drylands: Building Support for New Development Policies,” a policy brief published by WRI in 2002, available on-line at

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